Walk the Paradox

I turned 60 the other day. My younger brother, sending me his wishes, pointed out that 60 divides by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30, and 60, making it a very useful number. Back in the 3rd millennium BC, the Sumerians created a base-60 numeral system, called of course Sexagesimal (of course! you knew that already!) (enough with the you-knew-that-already!). Today we still employ it, in modified form, to count seconds and minutes and months and years, and to calculate angles and geographical coordinates.

In other words, space and time.

To celebrate my birthday, I spent a day and a night in Chartres with my wife Alexis. We did the same thing four years ago: Walk here and there, watch the magnificent illuminations projected upon the Cathedral and many other buildings, eat and drink, sleep and dream, space and time. Yes, space and time are verbs, actions, processes with hearts and minds of their own.

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Every place in the world is a good place for you to space and time. Chartres, however, is extra-good, in particular because of its Cathedral and what it represents, which we could call Eternity.

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Eternity—I mean, the Cathedral in Chartres—occupies a privileged position in space: high and visible from afar. Its location and height multiply its importance, its power to impress and elevate. Today, you can see its spires from the train station. Eight hundred years ago, when people had the habit of looking into the distance, you could see the spires from the “outer space in your brain,” to coin an expression. Looking into the distance and looking at your smartphone are both manifestations of the space-and-time continuum, but, man, looking into the distance is kinda awesome.

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Plato, Socrates, and Onassis met in a taverna and said, “Hey, let’s confuse people for the next two thousand years. One of us will say, ‘All I know is that I don’t know,’ another will pretend to have heard it, and the third will spread the rumor.” Ever since, Wikipedia has been trying to sort out the so-called “Socratic Paradox,” with limited success since NO ONE CAN SORT OUT A PARADOX.

But you can live it. Or, at least, you can walk it.

Visiting Chartres, you'll embody the I-don't-know principle. You won’t be able to understand how people built it without computers or power tools. You’ll look at the iconography, the stained-glass windows and the statuary, and you won’t know what each face and each beard and each fold of each garment is trying to tell you.

You’ll see hundreds of people from dozens of countries, walking here and there, taking photos, and—and singing, for Pete’s sake. And you won’t know if they’re “tourists” or “pilgrims.” Best of all, you won’t know if you yourself, in your flesh-and-bones here-and-nowness, are a tourist or a pilgrim.

The Cathedral has a labyrinth of stone and love, right in the middle of the nave. No one knows exactly when it was built, or by whom, or what for. For our purposes, we'll say it was built in 1200, a nice Sexagesimal number. A walk from the entry point to the center, and back out again, lasts anywhere from seven minutes to seven centuries, depending on your speed and state of mind. What will you find at the center of the labyrinth? This, too, depends on your state of mind. And it’s possible that the very walk might change what you're feeling, thinking, and doing. You won't know what you'll find until you find it.

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Do you need the labyrinth to Walk the Paradox? No. You can walk anywhere, within and without the Cathedral.

You might not have to walk at all. You can simply watch a video clip that a guy made, very indirectly inspired by Chartres and its labyrinthine paradoxes.

And for those of you who aren't cathedralicals, to coin a word, here's the profane version of the space-and-time walk. It's the ABSOLUTE SAME THING! Thus shouted Zarathustra from his mountain top!

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

The Long and the Short of It

I’ve been working on a book titled THE INTEGRATED STRING PLAYER. It’s an ambitious project, in length and scope. Once printed, the book will probably be about 350 pages long, and it'll include several dozen music examples. In addition, there’ll be a dedicated website with 80 video clips and 10 audio clips.

Ostensibly, the book is about musical techniques for violinists, cellists, and other string players, but it contains many concepts and tools that might be of interest not only to all musicians but also to non-musicians. If you’ve been receiving my newsletters for a while, you may have read a couple of excerpts from it. Here they are:

Before Everything Else, Do Nothing

Moving Identity

Writing music down is a complex art. There are hundreds of rules about key signatures, time signatures, clefs, instrumentation, note values and relationships, flats and sharps, dynamics, beams and stems, and so on. Musicians learn these rules partly by technical training, partly by trial and error. The rules are so complex that most musicians have blind spots, gaps, and misunderstandings. And behind our blind spots and gaps, there lurk fears and anxieties.

To set the music examples on the book, I used a program called Sibelius (named after a great Finnish composer). It’s like word processing for music scores.

In order to use the program, you have to have a decent understanding of music rules, of course; plus, you have to have a decent understanding of the software itself. Given how complex music is, the software is necessarily complex, too. It doesn’t matter how user-friendly the thing is—you still need to learn a million things to be able to use it properly. The whole endeavor is complexity, multiplied.

The Sibelius manual is 800 pages long.

To describe one of the exercises in the book, I needed to create a page of music with an intricate graphic design. How long did it take me to do it?

Hours, minutes, and seconds, measured by the clock, would seem to make time a linear and straightforward matter. The clock makes time appear objective. Everybody knows what five minutes means! The only problem is that the clock and your mind work in different ways. The clock’s predictable objectivity doesn’t correspond to how life feels to you.

The page I created is about an exercise I learned from one of my cello teachers, Mr. Aldo Parisot, around 1981 or 1982. I’ve been practicing the exercise ever since, and over the decades I’ve also taught it to dozens of players. It’s a wonderful exercise that really helps a string player coordinate his or her left hand at the instrument. So, I’ve spent 35 years practicing, teaching, describing, and annotating the exercise, which I call The Cat’s Leap.

I bought my Sibelius software around 2005. At first I was quite intimidated and discouraged by how much work there seemed to be in learning how to use it. I’d open the program, fiddle with it a little, and give up. Postponement and avoidance, guilt and shame, woo hoo! But about two years ago I started using the program more regularly and more intelligently. It’s indeed a complex program—there’s no way around it—but it happens to be exceedingly useful. I’ve spent 11 years circling around Sibelius and finding ways of dealing with it (or, more precisely, dealing with my postponement and avoidance, which isn't really about Sibelius).

I think I spent ten, 12, or 15 hours all counted on the page in question. But most of the time, I was studying Sibelius and its workings. The hours spent on the page will make future score-setting endeavors go much faster for me.

How long did it take me to write the book? How long did it take me to record my 80 video clips? How long did it take me to revise and edit them? How long did it take me to record my 10 audio clips? How long—

Well, you get the idea. How long do things take?

The time that it takes to do something is also the time that it takes for you to learn to do it.

I’m turning 58 this year. It takes me a second to type three words at the computer, but it has taken me 58 years to get to the point here & now, where it takes me a second to type three words at the computer. 58 years, 35 years, 11 years, 15 hours, a minute, a second—they’re all happening at the same time. The real clock is a kaleidoscope, a spiral, a labyrinth, a ziggurat, a mirage; time has a thousand interlocking dimensions, and your life is as long as it is short.

It feels really good to learn things, and it feels really good to spend time learning things. And time spent learning is immeasurable.

Mr. Parisot, by the way, is 95 years old and going strong, still teaching at Yale and conducting his cello ensemble, still a rambunctious little boy. He's the Cat's Leap, personified!

©2016, Pedro de Alcantara



My kingdom for a couple more hours!

Time is a flexible entity. If you’re bored, time drags. If you’re excited, time flies. Sixty seconds can seem like an eternity—for instance, if you inadvertently lock yourself out of your house. Naked. In winter.

There’s never a moment in your life when your moods and your needs and wants stop affecting your sense of time. Time is always, always, always flexible! In other words, you can always stretch time, steal time, and otherwise make and take the time to accomplish anything you really want to accomplish.

I’m saying this as a sort of confession. For the past few weeks I’ve been busy with deadlines, projects, travel plans, paperwork, and every last professional excuse ever invented. I’m in New York as I write, battling a big book deadline on a project I started roughly ten years ago. “I’ve been too busy to blog,” I telepathically told my subscribers. And you know what? I was lying! To myself first and foremost! How many things have I chosen to do recently that were less important and less fun then blogging? Dozens, hundreds, thousands of time-consuming things, many of which I wouldn’t even describe to you for fear of ridicule.

I wouldn’t say that I’m a complete slacker. I’ve done a lot of good things lately. I even found the time to read a couple of books, including a Sherlock Holmes novel I had never read before. It contains a quote attributed to William Gladstone, who was England’s prime minister for many years: “A change of work is the best rest.”

Moral of the story?

Writing this blog post has allowed me to procrastinate facing my big deadline. I feel so rested, I think I’ll pull an all-nighter on that ten-year project.